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The mud, the breath of the dragon, spring  

28 October 2016

David Wilbourne looks at publishers’ offerings for Advent reading

© 2016 David G. Klein

“Tell me about the manger. . .”: the last illustration by David G. Klein, for Christmas Day, in All Creation Waits

“Tell me about the manger. . .”: the last illustration by David G. Klein, for Christmas Day, in All Creation Waits

Living the Light

Robert Warren

York Courses £3.99 (booklet)


Church Times Bookshop £3.60

(Course pack, including booklet, CD, and transcript is available from www.yorkcourses.co.uk; phone 01904 466516)


Heralding the Coming King

Anne Calver

CWR £4.99


Church Times Bookshop £4.50


Advent for Everyone

Tom Wright

SPCK £8.99


Church Times Bookshop £8.10


To Nativity and Beyond: Worship resources for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany

David Sinclair

Saint Andrew Press £16.99


Church Times Bookshop £15.30


Christmas Playlist

Alistair Begg

The Good Book Company £2.99


Church Times Bookshop £2.70


Reflections for Sundays: Year A

Malcolm Guite, Angela Tilby and others

Church House Publishing £14.99


Church Times Bookshop £13.50


Reflections for Daily Prayer

Joanna Collicutt, Steven Croft, Paula Gooder and others

Church House Publishing £16.99


Church House Bookshop £15.30


Reflections for Advent

Joanna Collicutt and Steven Croft

Church House Publishing £2.99


Church House Bookshop £2.70


Love Life, Live Advent

Paula Gooder and Peter Babington

Church House Publishing £2.99


Church House Bookshop £2.70


The Canterbury Preacher’s Companion 2017: Year A

Michael Counsell

Canterbury Press £19.99


Church House Bookshop £18


The One True Story: Daily readings for Advent from Genesis to Jesus

Tim Chester

The Good Book Company £4.99


Church Times Bookshop £4.50


Be Strong Take Heart

Anthea Dove

Christians Aware* £6.99 + £2 p&p


*2 Saxby Street, Leicester LE2 0ND; www.christiansaware.co.uk


All Creation Waits: The Advent mystery of new beginnings

Gayle Boss

Paraclete Press £12.99


Church Times Bookshop £11.70



IN York Courses’ Living the Light, the evangelism guru Robert Warren has a fireside chat with Simon Stanley about Luke’s birth narrative, John’s prologue, Mary visiting Elizabeth, and Philippians 2.

Faithful, feisty, pragmatic, and unfailingly pastoral, Warren explores the depths with a light and humble touch, prompted by Stanley’s gentle, skilful questions. He talks movingly of having the nerve to stop, ponder, and wonder; of a mischievous God giving where he finds empty hands; of setting out to pastor someone, but finding that he himself is blessed.

Generous about including those who seemingly do not know Christ, he claims we may be surprised by whom we find sitting next to us in heaven. Sharp about those who have a false humility, or are ungracious about receiving, he castigates churches for offering a duvet spirituality to cosset people, instead of a hippopotamus spirituality that enables ministry in the mud.

With additional comments from four people in the pews, this four-part course gathers such momentum that by the third session every line hits home. Listening to this wondrous CD as I drove through the wondrous Brecon Beacons, I only wished Stanley and Warren could accompany my every journey.

Heralding the Coming King by Anne Calver, a Baptist minister, contains 31 Bible studies, supple­mented with prayers, questions, and final reflection, which can be adapted for group use. Calver para­phrases the story of the principal characters in the Matthaean and Lukan birth narratives in a clear and simple style.

Though inhabiting a very different world from mine (seeing being slain in the Spirit as faith par excellence), she gives moving examples of Advent readings’ having broadened her own life and ministry. Mary’s story even sowed doubts in her mind about male headship, convincing her that she was favoured not just as a daughter, wife, or mother, but as a person in her own right with God-given talents to harness.

In his foreword to Tom Wright’s Advent for Everyone, the Archbishop of York celebrates its wealth of fresh insights. Unfortunately, they are not that fresh, in that verbatim extracts from Wright’s previous books Matthew for Everyone are reheated here (SPCK diplomatically uses the word “distilled”). I realised that the game was up on page 74, when Wright describes the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis as if happening now.

Nevertheless, the extracts are vintage Wright: crisp translation, followed by an almost convincing anecdote, leading into a contextual, highly informed, but accessible hermeneutic, concluding with a punchy message. The most poignant describes Gethsemane as a glimpse of a weeping, terrified God, acting out the Beatitudes.

All 28 studies have an Advent theme of crisis: you are not all right as you are: repent! “If you do nothing else in your preparation for Christmas, read this book!” the Archbishop declares, naming it his Advent Book 2016. I did read it more than a decade ago, Your Grace. As Sydney Smith might have said, “I never read a book before writing a foreword: it gives me a sense of déjà vu.”

Our friend Fiona worshipped in our parish church, but hankered after her Church of Scotland roots, whose worship, though less sacramental, included more serious and substantial reflections than I provided. In To Nativity and Beyond, the Glaswegian minister David Sinclair represents the best of this Church of Scotland tradition.

Drawing on a broad scriptural base, he sets out striking acts of worship, David Kossofesque short stories, plays, contemporary comment and reflection, poetry, and intercession to be used over Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. An all-age eucharist just about includes the classic Catholic ingredients, though not necessarily in the right order.

I particularly enjoyed a lengthy and punchy dialogue between an ascetic St Nicholas and a profligate Santa Claus, shades of conversations between the Church of Scotland and Church of England.

Thoroughly theologically based, and peppered with a strong sense of social justice, this book will provide an invaluable and refreshing resource for churches wanting to beef up their Ministry of the Word. The flesh was made word and dwelt north of the border.

In Christmas Playlist, Alistair Begg analyses four Lucan canticles to “Trace . . . the Babe, who hath redeemed our loss, From his poor manger to his bitter cross”. God is immanent, our ever intimate friend, with “hands that placed each star in place grabbing hold of Mary’s fingers”.

Begg is funny, imagining God trying to tear the curtain of the Temple from top to bottom, just as we try to open “one of those pesky bags of airline peanuts”.

His championing substitutionary atonement is less funny: I baulk at a God who knocks successful people off their perches, condemns sinners to hell, and requires the grisly death of Christ, simply because “someone has to pay.” I fear I’m a bit of a Biblicist, who can’t get I Corinthians 13 out of his head, championing a divine Love that keeps no score of wrongs.

”We hardly ever see blood. Not vivid, red and spilled in front of us. Our slaughtering is sealed away from sight in abattoirs, the dreadful shedding of human blood glimpsed briefly in the distancing screen of a newscast.” Malcolm Guite quintessentially leads the way in Reflections for Sundays: Year A, which contains a 250-word piece on each OT, Epistle, and Gospel for the principal service for every Sunday and principal feast or holy day.

These are written by a collection of 50 has-beens, rising stars, and national treasures, curiously including one person long dead, whose opinions “do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the General Synod”. I guarantee that when I’m dead I certainly will not reflect General Synod policy.

With a succinct introduction on St Matthew’s Gospel by Paula Gooder, the book provides a useful resource, particularly for worship leaders unfamiliar with preaching. Though many of the pieces state the obvious, contributions from Angela Tilby, Martyn Percy, Mark Oakley, and, supremely, Malcolm Guite never failed to hit a high. On other Sundays, I will just have to think of something to say myself.

Reflections for Daily Prayer provides a 200-word daily reflection for one of the set readings for weekday Morning Prayer through­out the year, together with the collect for the day. It is a very attract­ively produced book, supple­mented with Seasonal Prayers of Thanksgiving and the Order for Night Prayer.

Seventeen people from various walks of life do a stint for a couple of weeks or so, producing writing of great quality, learning, and insight. To those who faithfully say the Office alone, they will provide very good and inspiring company.

Reflections for Advent is a slim extract, containing the daily reflec­tions until Christmas Eve, with a soigné introduction by Sam Wells: “Advent gets to the bottom of our waiting. Just for once this Advent, dare to feel the depth.”

Love Life, Live Advent by Paula Gooder and Peter Babbington is the equivalent of a cheery pre-Christmas cracker for every day in Advent. Pull the cracker on Sundays for a reading and prayer, and pull it on weekdays to reflect, pray, and act. There’s not much of a bang: maybe the website www.liveadvent.net will provide that.

In his foreword, the Archbishop of York champions Advent as a time to get up, wake up, clean up, and grow up. Though laudable, the latter aim is not helped by this infantil­ising advice for Christmas Eve: “As you make your final preparations for Christmas (getting out stockings, putting presents under the tree), take a moment to thank God for what he has already given you.”

The late Michael Counsell’s encyclopaedic The Canterbury Preacher’s Companion 2017: Year A is the first book of sermons I have ever come across which has an eight-page preface on how to read music. The whole book itself is a veritable music-hall performance, all singing, all dancing, nothing in all creation to which Counsell won’t try his hand.

Two sermon outlines are provided for each Sunday and other occasions throughout the year, supplemented with a wise choice of hymns. Counsell is level, holding a balance between rationalism and mystery, but, like all music-hall entertainers, he’s not averse to a bit of slapstick. He encourages people to say “Hello, Jesus” on entering a church, to dial up Jesus on their mobile phone and have an imagin­ary conversation, and advises would-be adulterers to hang a “Just say no!” card on their bedroom wall.

Along the way, he is serious about Guy Fawkes, St Augustine, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Russian spirituality, Rosetti’s Blessed Damozel, Milton’s “Ode on his Blindness”, Yeats’s “The Indian upon God”, and Gilbert and Sul­livan’s The Gondaliers.

He hilariously records the minutes of an international con­ference of demons, a Christmas round robin from the Gloom family, and a letter from Lydia bemoaning the Philippian church’s losing the plot.

Tim Chester’s The One True Story is ingenious and imaginative. In 24 studies for Advent, each ending with a punchy meditation and prayer, he vividly manages to bring to life several of the characters listed in Matthew’s dry genealogy, enmeshing them with the new life offered by Christ’s birth.

He is not afraid of bold statements: any family bickering at Christmas grieves the Holy Spirit of God; if you experience Christian life as a burden, something is wrong. Although Revelation 12 is hardly my birth narrative of choice, I was moved by Chester’s concern for present-day Christians who “will feel the fiery breath of the dragon” this Christmastide, as I was by his tremendous chapter linking the slaughter of the Innocents with the present-day refugee crisis.

Chester’s exposition of Genesis 18 (Abraham pleading with God to spare Sodom) and 2 Samuel 24 (David beseeching God to spare Jerusalem) eloquently tones down the doctrine of substitutionary atonement by emphasising divine mercy rather than divine judgement. A lovely book, championing Christ as the gentle whisper of God, revealing himself in your neigh­bourhood.

Avoid Anthea Dove’s Be Strong Take Heart Advent if you want a cosy, undisturbed run-up to Christ­mas. She juxtaposes readings from the Sunday and Weekday Missal with poems and searing, harrowing vignettes of people and situations that have made an impact on her, from a personal to an international level. The angels, shepherds ,and magi may have gone long since, but the crying persists, of which we are chiefly oblivious. A deeply con­verting, moving, and beautiful

When Gayle Boss’s boys were young, she was keen to produce an Advent calendar with a difference. So she drew 24 pen-and-ink drawings of local creatures. Twenty years on, in All Creation Waits, some of the illustrations by David G. Klein are based on these, each with an accompanying two-page text, reaching a climax on Christmas Day.

Boss describes every creature’s habitat, and the physiological and neurological changes that are taking place as they wait in winter’s midst until “one day some mystery within them whispers ‘Spring!’” This lyrical, numinous classic is a Benedicite of a prose poem, worthy of a Laurie Lee or Ronald Blythe: the best Advent calendar ever.


The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is the Assistant Bishop of Llandaff.

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